Deep in the catacombs, classical music finds a new home and a new audience

Deep in the catacombs, classical music finds a new home and a new audience

 Staged in Green-Wood Cemetery’s famed catacombs, the series “The Angel’s Share” invites the living to mingle with the dead. 

When the second iteration of the concert series “The Angel Share” made its dress rehearsal debut at Green-Wood Cemetery earlier this year, it was met with a thunderstorm. Call it kismet or an eerie curtain call, the heavy downpour cracked over the catacomb as the final, quivering notes of Henry Purcell’s devastating opera “Dido and Aeneas” resounded through the narrow hall, blanketing the end of the production with a soft wash of sound.

As it turns out, the whims of weather — along with spiders, raccoons and rodents — come as a hazard (or surprising benefit) of the trade when mounting a concert in such an obscure location.

“We never don’t find something new to deal with in that regard,” said Andrew Ousley, who organized the series, along with his equally alluring program “Crypt Sessions.” “It’s essentially an open space. There are spiders around; little critters sometimes get in there. And it’s in the middle of a cemetery.”

"Dido and Aeneas." Photo: Kevin Condon.
“Dido and Aeneas.” Photo: Kevin Condon.

Despite key logistical hurdles (like getting power, making sure patrons can escape the locked cemetery gates and protecting delicate instruments from dryness and humidity), the unique nature of the space has proved accommodating for both classical music connoisseurs and and those new to the art form. Beyond the mystique of the picturesque cemetery, which is known for its famous dwellers, the compact interior of the Green-Wood’s catacomb offers a rare chance to see virtuosic musicians perform challenging pieces in close range, allowing the audience to observe the athleticism and skill it requires.

“To me it’s incredibly important to create intimate experiences,” Ousley said. “I think given half of our audience are people who have never been to classical music shows, that intimacy is such a powerful way to convert people to the art form.”

"Dido and Aeneas." Photo: Kevin Condon.
“Dido and Aeneas.” Photo: Kevin Condon.

Ousley noted that while time has smoothed some of the production kinks, he continues to perfect the list of artists and ensembles slated to appear as the series works its way through its second season. “I’m trying to push things — I don’t really like to just settle on a formula,” Ousley said. As a result, the programming has expanded to include a seven-piece Baroque ensemble (played on period instruments) and a harpsichord. Later in the season, the catacombs will play host to a string orchestra and an immersive, large-scale performance in October.

A notable entry in this direction is an ambitious presentation of Liszt’s “Poetic and Religious Harmonies,” a mystical feat of skill and endurance presented in the last week of September. The seldom-staged work, which will be captured by ALL ARTS, will be performed by the acclaimed pianists Adam Tendler and Jenny Lin. The production includes a mirror installation above the piano, its hammer and strings exposed, to help audience members see the pianists’ hands as they play the work.

Adam Tendler and Jenny Lin. Credit Kevin Condon.
Adam Tendler and Jenny Lin. Credit Kevin Condon.

“Liszt’s ‘Poetic and Religious Harmonies’ is a towering, ten-movement journey through mortality and transcendence — traveling from a child’s awakening to the final funeral bells, before finally ending with the shatteringly beautiful ‘Hymn of Love,’” Ousley said. “People rarely perform it live since it’s so technically challenging, not to mention physically and emotionally exhausting, but fortunately Adam Tendler and Jenny Lin were ready and willing to rise to the occasion, in what’s going to be a deeply personal evening of music in the catacombs.”

Still, as the performances become more elaborate and involved, Ousley stressed that he attempts to expand the series in a manner that doesn’t take away from the allure inherent to the catacombs.

“[We’re] trying to enhance the theatricality of this space without changing or hiding [its] nature,” Ousley said. “That’s at the core. But how we do that is something I’m still going to continue to kind of experiment with.”

“Poetic and Religious Harmonies” continues through Sept. 27. Information for future programs can be found here.

Top Image: Adam Tendler and Jenny Lin. Credit Kevin Condon.